Friday, October 11, 2002

Interview: "Punch In The Dark"

The Star, Written By Peter Howell
October 11th, 2002

Punch-Drunk Love director tones down past pretensions

It's a frantic afternoon during the Toronto International Film Festival, and filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be doing his best impression of Frodo Baggins, the hungry and hairy hobbit from The Lord Of The Rings.

Curled up on a club chair in a darkened corner of a Windsor Arms Hotel bar, he's barefoot, unshaven and plowing through a huge plate of French fries, scarfing them by the fistful. The 32-year-old Californian looks as if he's barely survived a mythic quest of some sort — which, when you're talking about the birth of a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, isn't far from the truth.

"You want some of these?" he says, proffering the platter of fries. The snack is declined, but wine makes a more enticing offer. Soon glasses are clinking in toast to Punch-Drunk Love, the off-kilter romance starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson that shows how weird obsessions, extortion and death threats can lead to love.

The film won Anderson, whose earlier work includes the critical sensations Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, the best-director prize at Cannes last spring. (Punch-Drunk Love received its North American premiere at the Toronto festival and opens in theatres today.)

Anderson's rec-room casualness seems at odds with the elaborate dance required to sit for a spell with him. His high-profile L.A. publicist Bumble Ward, the main player in a recent New Yorker article on Hollywood spin-control tactics, has let it be known that "PTA" prefers to have his interviews written up in brisk Q&A format, maintaining a just-the-facts distance while allowing maximum space for his rambling views. The deal almost falters on The Star's refusal to commit to such a format, which is apparently all the rage stateside among time-pressed scribes and image-conscious celebrities.

The control-freak aspect of the interview also seems out of sync with writer-director Anderson's anything-goes approach to making Punch-Drunk Love, which he calls "jumping off a cliff." With just three previous features to his name — but enough critical acclaim to last a lifetime — he was already starting to feel stale.

"You know that feeling where you're just f--king fed up with how you've done it before?" Anderson asks rhetorically.

"So I was just thinking, I don't know where we're going to start, but I don't want it to start here ... It was just kind of being frustrated a little bit with making movies, and just going, `How do we f--k ourselves up a little bit, how do we scare ourselves?'"

The answer was to write a movie specifically for comedian Adam Sandler, until now the least likely person to star in a Paul Thomas Anderson picture.

Casting the king of the dorks as a serious romantic lead seems at first a move less inspired than wilfully obtuse for Anderson, who has shown taste and perception in his previous casting choices of such fine character actors as Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who is also in Punch-Drunk Love). But remember that one of Martin Scorsese's best movies, The King Of Comedy, starred Jerry Lewis, the spiritual forefather of Sandler. Maybe the idea of using Sandler isn't so crazy after all, and Anderson insists he really is a huge fan: He loves Sander's films Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy and The Wedding Singer, but what really turned him on to the crewcut cut-up was watching him in an ancient skit called The Denise Show on TV's Saturday Night Live, where Sandler rose to fame in the early '90s.

The Denise Show is a spoof of low-budget cable TV call-in programs. Sandler plays the recently dumped ex-boyfriend of a woman named Denise, and he's trying to get his viewers to assist him in winning Denise back. At one point, the father of Sandler's character calls the show and tells his son to stop embarrassing his family, a demand that enrages the son.

"I saw at this moment where Adam lost it," Anderson says, breaking into a laugh as he tells the story. "You see — omigod! — that the whites of his eyes have gone away. It was this incredible rage, one of those moments where an actor loses it, he doesn't know what he's doing, but he's out there under the lights, going cuckoo.

"I saw it happen, and I played it over and over again, and I thought, this guy is fucking amazing. He has the ability to lose his mind in a great way. He can go from goofy stuff, stuff about getting stoned, to like really crazy complicated stuff. It's spooky. It's amazing."

Sandler, as it turned out, was also a fan of Anderson's. He loved Boogie Nights, the 1997 collision of '70s disco and '80s porn that made a movie star out of Mark Wahlberg. It also helped that Sandler and Anderson are both workaholics.

"We're both into working, and kind of obsessive and dedicated to it," Anderson says. "We're consumed by it, really into it."

Anderson was equally motivated to get British actress Emily Watson as the Brooklyn-born Sandler's love interest in Punch-Drunk Love, even though, once again, it's not exactly a match that comes readily to mind. But Watson was game for a comedy, having had her fill recently of "crying and dying" roles.

"I've seen just about everything of hers, particularly Breaking The Waves, of course," says Anderson, who cites Waves director Lars von Trier as one of his personal heroes.

"That was her first movie, and the first one I saw her in. Who wouldn't want to work with her?"

Perhaps Anderson's biggest risk was his insistence on casting Sandler and Watson alongside many non-actors.

Sandler plays the introverted Barry Egan, the sole brother in a family of seven domineering sisters. Egan is pursued by a phone-sex extortion gang muscled by four Mormon brothers from Utah. Most of the sisters actually are related; the four Mormons actually are brothers.

"I like using unknown actors," Anderson says. "I like working with real people. They can make your life a lot easier and more comfortable sometimes. They can be more fun to be around sometimes, and actually better at being whatever they are.

"Seeing an actor trying to physically pretend that he's a garbage man can be kind of excruciating sometimes, if they don't really know how to operate the machine. Why don't you just get a f--king garbage man who knows how to push the button and he can cut through a lot of that crap?"

It's hard to say which fans, Anderson's or Sandler's, will be most puzzled by Punch-Drunk Love. Anderson aficionados, familiar with his interweaving plot turns, three-hour running times and bold use of music, might find something wanting in a quirky love story that barely reaches the 90-minute mark of a no-brainer date movie. The plot is alarmingly like that of most Adam Sandler movies: Sandler gets abused, gets mad and then gets the girl.

Sandler supporters, meanwhile, may have trouble with their hero's sad-sack demeanour and his lack of one-liners.

They might also scratch their head over Anderson's use of a beat-up harmonium, a piano-like instrument that literally drops into Barry Egan's life, as a recurring symbol more typical of films by the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel.

Anderson is the same director, remember, who suddenly introduced a Biblical shower of frogs into Magnolia during the film's climax.

Anderson is hoping that everyone in the audience gets Punch-Drunk Love. He insists that he doesn't enjoy confusing people — he's really, truly sorry if those frogs baffled you — and that he seriously wants to have a blockbuster mainstream hit, not just another critical favourite.

"I'm trying to hit a home run every time," Anderson says, reaching for another fistful of fries.

"I keep thinking they're all $100-million hits. And then they've just let me down. I have a preoccupation with being an entertainer. With showing people a good time, even if it's just being good at communicating.

"So if somebody gets frustrated by the frogs, it makes me feel badly, because I thought it was great and funny. But maybe there was too much pretension there."

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